Cindy Kelly: It is Wednesday, September 12, 2018. I’m in Seattle, Washington, and I have Jackie Peterson with me. My first question to her is to tell me her full name and spell it.
Jackie Peterson: My name is Jackie Peterson. It’s J-a-c-k-i-e Peterson, P-e-t-e-r-s-o-n.
Kelly: I’d love to know more about yourself and how you got involved in this. Maybe you could start by just giving a brief bio, where you were born and when.
Peterson: Sure. I am originally from East Orange, New Jersey. I grew up there most of my life. Went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Moved back up north, wanted to be closer to home. Spent about ten years in New York City, where I did a graduate degree in museum studies from New York University, which launched me into my career in the museum field. I did a museum studies degree there, where I got really interested in exhibition design and exhibition development. So I began sometime during my graduate school years, I happened upon a job at an exhibition design firm in New York City. And so I had been working with various kinds of museums.
I really found myself enjoying much more working on history and culture projects. My degree, undergraduate, is actually in English and history.
Peterson: I found myself kind of being drawn more to working on history and culture projects. New York just became very expensive and kind of difficult to live in. So my spouse and I decided to look for something new and different and we moved to Seattle. He works in the tech industry, so it sort of made sense. And at that time, I decided to branch off and start my own consulting business. I have been doing independent curatorial work, independent and freelance exhibition development, and exhibit writing.
I feel like the story of most of my life—things just sort of happened a lot by chance and kind of fell into my lap. A friend of a friend, I believe, forwarded me. I believe it was – I can’t remember from where, but forwarded me some information about the Northwest African American Museum here in Seattle. And they were looking for some research assistance with an exhibition they were developing about African Americans who worked at Hanford. I thought, well, seems like a perfect opportunity, and you know, who knows where it will lead.
Initially, I signed on just to sort of help with research, but the curator at the time, she left her position at the museum. While they were looking for another curator, they sort of handed off the whole project to me and I sort of took the lead on it.
Kelly: That’s fabulous.
Kelly: Are you still freelance or did you join on to the museum?
Peterson: No, I am still independent. Yes.
Kelly: Good, good. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to see it, but I’ve certainly heard wonderful things about it.
Peterson: Yeah. It was a wonderful experience working on this exhibition. It got a lot of press, which kind of surprised me for such a small exhibition in terms of the actual footprint of the space. But everyone seemed very, very pleased and very excited that this particular story was being told, especially in the Seattle area. I think the museum itself – it had been some time since the African American Museum had done a history exhibition. So I think the museum’s audience gravitated towards that, and they were happy to see a little break from their more art-based exhibitions.
“The Atomic Frontier: Black Life at Hanford” was an exhibition that pulled together both the back story of how we got to Hanford – detailing the formation of the Manhattan Project – and talking about the climate of the United States at the time just prior to Hanford being built. The exhibition looked at how the government came to acquire the property of Hanford and what that process looked like. How African Americans even learned about the Hanford project at all. How the government very actively recruited folks from various states in the South. Some folks talking about their journey to get to Washington State. Then what the African Americans who ended up working at Hanford, what their experiences were like up through the time when people learned that they were working on the atomic bomb. Sort of what the fallout was shortly after August of 1945.
I think for a lot of African American folks living in the South, they were living through Jim Crow, which was very serious discrimination, segregation, repression, oppression. It was very difficult for people to get jobs, particularly following the Great Depression. There was barely work for European Americans, let alone African Americans, and so people were making five, ten cents an hour if they were lucky to find a job working across the South. So I think that things were so bad for African American folks that there were very few opportunities for them where they were living. I think there was this feeling that there had to be something better, and so when the United States decided to enter World War II, that opened up a lot of doors for people. That provided a way out for a lot of folks who sort of felt like they weren’t getting anywhere in life.
I would say that that feeling of despair and hopelessness was not necessarily everyone’s experience. There were – if there was to be an upside of living in a segregated community – I feel like there was a decent number of folks who sort of felt very insulated from some of the really bad experiences of racism and oppression. These communities formed that were actually quite supportive, and a lot of folks had a more positive experience. However, it was a lot like living in a small town. There were a lot of folks who were also feeling like if there were no opportunities for me, it was because it was a kind of a small community, and there was only so much I could do or there were only so many opportunities. Even if I was living in a place where I felt safe and protected, and even if I could get some kind of education, it wasn’t the best kind of education I could get.
There was a kind of feeling, on one end or the other, whether you were from a fairly safe, positive, segregated community, or if you were living in a place where people were being lynched and houses were being burned, there was still a feeling that where people were wasn’t the end. Wasn’t where they wanted to end up.
When a lot of white men and women were called up to work in the armed forces, that vacuum of open jobs opened up a lot of opportunities, as I mentioned, for African American folks, both in terms of the kinds of jobs that they could get and the types of salaries that they could make. The government was paying by far and away well more than they would ever, ever hope to earn in their communities across the South and the Midwest. I think that a lot of folks saw that as a chance for them to finally make something of themselves and really, really sort of live the American dream as a lot of their fellow Americans, their fellow white Americans, had been doing. It was a huge shift, I think, in terms of where African Americans were able to contribute to the United States and particularly the economy and the war effort.
Kelly: I’ve read a couple of books on the Great Migration. Maybe you want to talk about that and the trends that had started, I think, then.
Peterson: Sure. World War II was one of the largest waves of the Great Migration, sparked a lot of movement across the country. A lot of urban centers had, again, a lot of these job vacuums that were created by mostly white men going off to fight in combat. So a lot of African American men in particular, but also women and families, just packed up and decided to take their chances, particularly in urban centers in the Northeast and the Midwest.
There was kind of a short trickle out to the West Coast, but for the most part, people started themselves in places like Chicago and New York City, Detroit. And then some folks eventually kept going west, and once a lot of the shipyards started opening up jobs to African Americans, mostly in California, Oregon, then you started to see a wave of folks moving again from the Midwest and the Northeast and, again, from the South. Folks started flowing westward for those jobs, also aviation. There were a lot of Navy jobs up and down the West Coast, and so folks started making their way out there for those opportunities.
Interestingly, a lot of women found work. A lot of the training programs that were skilled labor, welding, those kinds of jobs. Women found that they were able to participate in those training programs, African American women in particular, and get well-paying jobs for themselves, in addition to African American men.
Kelly: So if we went to the Rosie the Riveter—
Kelly: World War II Museum [misspoke: Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park], would we see African American women?
Peterson: I have not been to that museum, the Rosie the Riveter Museum, myself, but I would hope that they would be telling that story. Because I’ve seen loads of archival photos showing African American women doing that kind of work. My hope is that they would be telling that story.
Kelly: One of the things that you could help clarify for my benefit is – you mentioned that there were mostly European Americans who were being recruited. Or maybe they were volunteering for the armed services. What was the policy of the armed services, at least at the beginning of the war, perhaps with respect to African American recruitment?
Peterson: At the time the United States decided to enter World War II, all of the armed forces were still segregated. African Americans were not allowed to participate in combat, generally speaking. That’s not entirely true across the board, but in most cases, you’d find that African Americans were janitorial services, they worked in the kitchens. They were sort of auxiliary and support staff. Rarely ever were African Americans trained for combat. There were a few battalions, for sure, but—
So, the military at the time was segregated, which meant that a lot of the kind of auxiliary operations of the military, particularly at home in the United States, were also segregated. In some cases, that segregation was not formal. It wasn’t codified. There was no written document that said, “These quarters are for African Americans only; these quarters are for whites only.”
A lot of it was more informal and done in a way that it was just expected that that would be the case. Which is why Hanford’s facilities, their setup, was kind of interesting in that respect. Because, very few facilities at Hanford were formally segregated. I think there’s very little documentation that would show you that the military specifically said, “Okay, this space is designated for African Americans only.” A lot of it was that that was the expectation. A lot of white folks who came to Hanford to work on the Manhattan Project, African American folks who came to work on the Manhattan Project, they were used to living in segregated communities, and that was the expectation.
I believe the barracks and there were two mess halls that were formally segregated. But other than that, most of the work teams were not segregated. However, there were very few, if any, African Americans who were foremen or had leadership positions. Those were mostly white men. A lot of the social activities were not segregated. There were spaces that were segregated, but again, informally. There was not written documentation that said the pool hall had to be segregated from this time to this time. But that’s kind of how it worked out. It’s interesting how some of these more informal ways that folks were segregated at Hanford came about. Because there was no order from the military that said this space had to be segregated. But the way that the community developed there, interestingly, there were segregated activities, for sure. I think it was more about preserving the comfort of some people over others.
I would say the vast majority of African Americans who came to work at Hanford were from the very deep South, so places like Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, places where there was very, very entrenched racism, oppression, segregation.
Kelly: In contrast, I suppose: the white work force at Hanford. Where were they from?
Peterson: That’s an excellent question. The white Americans who came to work at Hanford did not figure terribly into my research, so I’m not exactly sure whereabouts most of them came from. Anecdotally, I know a lot of folks came from the Midwest, from places like Utah, Colorado, kind of neighboring states, Idaho, just because it was an easy trip. Again, I think because the Depression impacted folks in the Midwest so greatly – which isn’t to say that folks, other parts of the country did not suffer – but it seemed like those folks were most likely to, again, jump at the opportunity to make a decent living, get out of wherever they were living. And find better living conditions and better opportunities.
Kelly: Good. Tell us a little bit about the recruitment.
Peterson: Ah, this is fun. Initially, the Manhattan Project recruitment strategy was I feel slightly self-confident. People thought, well, we’re just going to put it out there. If you build it, they will come. They got an initial wave of folks primarily through in-person recruitment. There were teams of folks who would literally, day-by-day, show up in different places in the country. The government basically divided the entire country into regions, and so each team of the recruiting folks were assigned to a different region.
One day they would show up in some place in Arkansas. They would take over whatever related military office they could. They would send out flyers, they would put ads in the newspaper. If they were fortunate enough to be able to do so in time they would do radio ads. People would turn up at their office. They’d be given a little ticket with their name and number. And again, if they were fortunate to have the funds, the individuals would be given some money to pay for their train or bus fare. Then they would show up in Hanford and turn in the ticket they were given at the recruitment office.
There was an initial wave of folks, but kind of shortly after they launched, secured the Hanford site and launched operations there, they hit a bit of a slump. They had to really ramp up their efforts, and as it turned out, they initially didn’t publish how much people were going to earning. But they figured, “You know what, we really need bodies on this project and we need them now. Maybe we should entice people by telling them what their salary is going to be.” So you started seeing newspaper ads that would say, “Paying minimum $1.00 an hour to work on top-secret government project in Washington State.”
I think at the time, people were so drawn by the financial opportunity that it didn’t really matter that they didn’t know what they were going to be working on. Which is another really interesting thing to think about in the day and age when we have Google and we can just look up whatever we want. Back in the ‘40s that didn’t exist and there was a lot more trust in our government. So people said, “Hey, $1.00 an hour, that’s ten times what I’m making right now. Sign me up.” Once people started to get wind of that, they kind of figured out where to go. A lot of people just bypassed that sort of formal showing up at the office process and just ended up showing up in Hanford. They would drive, they would take buses, and they would say, “Hey, I heard this radio ad” or “I saw this in the newspaper. I hear there are jobs here. Can I work?” I think rarely did anyone ever get turned down.
Kelly: In the beginning, there was a lot of need for construction crews.
Peterson: Yes. When the government purchased the Hanford property, it was mostly farmland, very small communities of folks living there. Some Native American tribal lands there. Unfortunately, they had to lose their land because of this, the Manhattan Project. There was really nothing there and that was mostly intentional. Part of the reason Hanford was selected, of the other sites under consideration on the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest in particular, was because it was fairly isolated and it’s right on the Columbia River. They had a source of clean water and power.
The Hanford facilities had to be built literally from scratch. Most of the needs early on in the Manhattan Project were for construction, and so there was a large need for all manner of labor, skilled, unskilled. But the majority of folks, African Americans in particular, who came to work at Hanford fell into the unskilled labor category. Most of them worked in construction, so building barracks, building a lot of the office facilities, building the reactor facilities. Running the cement trucks, waste management, all the different odd jobs required to actually build things.
Kelly: My understanding is that in the initial burst of construction there were as many as 50,000 living and working at the so-called Hanford camp. But that was disbanded once it started production, and that some of the original people who were there for construction purposes might have left or might have been absorbed in the operations. Can you talk about what happened to some of these. Did they–
Peterson: Sure. Once construction was underway and most of the more permanent facilities were built, work kind of slowed down. Unfortunately, there were a good number of African American folks who were out of a job. Again, anecdotally, there were folks who attempted to go back home to where they were from and most of them, I think, found it very difficult to stick around. Because, not that there wasn’t racism in Hanford, not that there wasn’t discrimination in Hanford, but for some folks the degree to which they experienced racism in Washington State was significantly less than what they had experienced living in the Deep South. So a lot of folks ended up coming back. Many of them tried to find work in other parts of the state. People kind of trickled down to Seattle and Tacoma and Bremerton and Puget Sound. Some folks ended up being able to actually stay in Hanford and continue working on the project.
When the permanent barracks were built, the kind of temporary housing camps that had been set up for those construction workers were eventually destroyed. But because the Hanford area was a little bit strange in the sense that there was no formal segregation, but there wasn’t a huge black population in the Tri-Cities: Kennewick, Pasco, Richland. People weren’t really sure what to do with this sudden increase in population of African Americans. Again, it was not codified, but through kind of handshake deals between banks and real estate agents, essentially, African Americans that wanted to stay in that area were forced to live in Pasco, which is on the other side of the Columbia River from Hanford.
At that time, Pasco was not particularly well-developed. There was a small downtown area and kind of the surrounds were populated again by mostly white people. The parts of Pasco that African Americans were relegated to live in were out near the trains and the railyards. Which again, very, very underdeveloped, not a lot of facilities or services out that way. So kind of like a second camp type situation ended up developing where folks were living in fairly poor conditions.
On the flip side, if you were lucky enough to have made enough money, you could have also purchased a trailer to live on the Hanford campus proper. But again, the trailer setup was such that African Americans were relegated to a very specific area within the trailer camp. Trailers were not cheap, so you really had to have saved your money and been very diligent about putting money away, particularly if you wanted to bring your whole family and have everybody stay together. Staying in a trailer was your best hope. But again, not formally – there’s no plan that says, “Okay, here’s the trailer camp, this part is for African Americans, everything else is for everyone else.” It just sort of happened that way. People sort of heard, you know, through word of mouth that, “Oh, hey, all the African American folks are here, can’t stay over there.” Good luck trying.
Kelly: I’ve heard about a sort of sundowner policy at Kennewick. Can you talk about that?
Peterson: Yeah. Because Washington State had no legal segregation, a lot of it was citizens kind of banding together and acting on their own. Kennewick became a sundown town. Kennewick is connected to Pasco via a bridge over the river. A lot of places across the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest worked with – a lot of citizens worked with – their local law enforcement to essentially keep African Americans out of their towns during certain parts of the day. A lot of these towns became known as sundown towns, because African Americans were not permitted to be in those towns after the sun set. This was enforced by the Kennewick Police Department, and they would be sitting at the foot of the bridge. If you were an African American and you would try to cross the bridge into Kennewick after sundown, you would be turned back. If they saw an African American person within the City of Kennewick after sundown, police would follow you around and ensure that you left.
There are some crazy stories of people who said even during the daytime – African Americans were allowed to shop and do their business and whatever within Kennewick during the day. But even so, police would very much follow people around. If you crossed the bridge, there would usually be a policeman waiting there. He would ask you what business you had in Kennewick. He would say, “Okay,” and then he would essentially beat you to wherever you said you were going to make sure you were being honest about what you were doing. Because if you said, “Well, I’m going to so-and-so grocery store to buy my groceries for the week,” the policeman would follow you and make sure you were at the grocery store. If you were anywhere else, likely you would be followed and kicked out.
That was fairly common, not just in Washington State, but in other places, again, where there wasn’t formal segregation. People found ways to restrict where African Americans could go, where they could shop, where they could live, where they could eat. Anecdotally I’ve heard of places even within downtown Pasco that would refuse to serve African Americans, would refuse to serve people who actually worked at Hanford. It’s like, come on, we’re helping our country, we’re doing our duty and yet here we are, we can’t even get a hot meal in the place that we live. People like to think that places like Washington State were free of racism or segregation, but people found ways.
Partially, again, because prior to World War II, I think the number was 30. That was the African American population in the Tri-Cities area. You know, it went from 30 to five, six, ten thousand. What felt, I’m sure, to the people living there like overnight. Since they couldn’t go backwards and say, “Hey, City Council, we need to make all these segregation laws,” let’s kind of work through back channels because we don’t want these people in our community. So let’s restrict them as much as we can. That’s how a lot of the racism expressed itself.
People wouldn’t outright burn crosses on your lawn, but if you called up a real estate agent to buy a house in Kennewick, they would say, “Oh, nope, sorry. That house just suddenly went off the market.” If a white person – maybe that person was your friend – if they called the same real estate agent five minutes later, the real estate agent would say, “Sure, what time do you want to come by? Happy to show you the house.” There were things like that that were quite common.
Kelly: Are there sources that you turn to, or is this anecdotal?
Peterson: While I was doing my research for the exhibition, certainly, the oral history archive from the Atomic Heritage Foundation was a great source of folks who talked to some of that experience of segregation. There were folks in Pasco who are some of the descendants of the some of the first people who came to work at Hanford during that World War II period. They shared some anecdotes from their relatives. Some of the video oral histories that the African American Community and Cultural Educational Society, so AACCES for short, African American community organization in Pasco, a lot of their oral history archive speaks to some of that, experiences of racism and segregation. There are a few articles. Dr. Robert Bauman at WSU [Washington State University] Tri-Cities was a great resource in the work that he’s done to research the experience of African Americans at Hanford. There is certainly a good amount of both documented and anecdotal information that really kind of paints a picture of what African American folks experienced while they were living and working at Hanford.
Kelly: Can you talk a little bit more about the work that they did and how you said there were teams that were integrated, that they didn’t segregate the workforce so much?
Peterson: When African Americans arrived at Hanford, they were, I presume, asked if they had any particular skills, and if not, most of them were assigned to general construction crews. Most people worked on a team of probably about anywhere from 10 to 20 people on a particular part of the facility. Initially, people were assigned to work on the barracks. Housing, I think, was the first priority. Once some of those facilities were built, folks kind of moved to different parts of the facility, particularly the reactor facilities and waste management, those kinds of facilities. Those teams were not formally segregated. Some of them were kind of by default, and some were not.
Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for people to advance in terms of being promoted. A lot of the construction foremen in particular were usually white. A lot of the more administrative positions were all occupied by white people. There were some folks who were able to take on very specialized jobs. Concrete pouring, for example, was a job that paid slightly more than the basic construction-level crews. I can’t remember. There were a couple of other jobs within the construction world that if you were lucky enough to buddy up to somebody or show that you were doing a good job to start with, you would get tagged to be put on these kinds of jobs, which were not so much working in a big group. But you’d be working in maybe a crew of two to five people. So there were opportunities, but they were very limited.
Kelly: Are there many examples of African Americans who came to Hanford and then eventually stayed for ten years, twenty years, made a career of this?
Peterson: Let’s see. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of specific examples of African Americans who stayed in the construction business, for example, and remained in the Tri-Cities after World War II ended. People did, of course, stay in the Tri-Cities. They mostly just managed to open up their own businesses. Again, because there were so many restrictions on where people could go and what people could do that many African Americans ended up opening their own. People built their own churches, people opened their own dry-cleaning services, restaurants, shops within the Pasco community. A lot of people were very successful with those businesses and ended up just staying because of that.
I think there’s this wonderful sense of resilience and ingenuity that in the face of losing jobs after the war, discrimination, people really rallied and did for themselves and did for the African American community in Pasco. Even though the population has since dwindled dramatically, there’s a lot of those businesses that were founded around the time of World War II are still going.
Kelly: What is the population now? I mean, can you give us a little trend line of what it was then and how it’s grown?
Peterson: I think the population sort of hovered around 5,000 African Americans up until about ’45, ’46. There’s been some kind of expansion and shrinking since then. To be honest, I can’t even quite remember the exact percentage. It’s rather small, it’s probably well under 5% African American today [approximately 2% by a 2017 estimate]. Even though the population in general of the Tri-Cities has trended upward, it’s definitely growing and is still growing, the African American population has either plateaued or decreased. In general, there are not a lot of opportunities in the Tri-Cities if you don’t work in agriculture. That’s sort of the big employer these days. Because of that, and because there’s so much farming and agriculture, the Hispanic population has actually taken off. That’s sort of pushing towards being the majority population out in the Tri-Cities. The African American population never really rebounded after World War II. Again, specifically because there was not a lot of opportunity. People still faced a lot of racism and discrimination, even up through the 1960s, 1970s.
Things were kind of difficult. The people who persisted, for the most part their descendants are still there. They are a small but mighty community, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Hanford was the biggest employer for quite some time. Some people were lucky to be rehired at Hanford once the Cold War era started and there was a lot of fear of nuclear activity from the Russians. At that point, Hanford expanded its facilities, so there was a small kind of crew of folks that were hired to help with that effort. But not nearly at the scale as that initial World War II phase.
It’s funny, what little people heard about Washington State before they arrived was, you know, it’s called the Evergreen State. Everything is green and beautiful, but no one really ever talks about what it’s like east of the Cascades, which is desert. It gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. I think a lot of people were not prepared for that. There’s a lot of kind of funny anecdotes from people about showing up in November and December and being like, “It’s dry and brown. What are we going to do for a Christmas tree? There’s no evergreens out here.” It was really shocking. In fact, there were several people who left because the landscape was so depressing. They weren’t at all mentally or physically prepared for that.
Kelly: That’s true.
Peterson: Yeah. It was a very interesting experience for me. That was the first time I had been east of the Cascades myself as I was doing research for the Black Lives at Hanford exhibition. It was a very typical Seattle day. It was in March. It was a little gray, it was a little drizzly. I drove that time and so we leave Seattle. We took I-90 through the Cascades, where it proceeded to snow. Then as soon as we got on the other side of the Cascades, it was sunny and 70 degrees. It was so bizarre to have experienced three different weather patterns within a couple of hours. But it is a very different landscape out there. The second time I went out there was in July, where it’s 110 degrees if you’re lucky. It’s a very strange – not strange in terms of weird, but just if you’re not used to living in a desert or being in a desert landscape, it’s a very strange place. I think a lot of people didn’t know what to expect. Then they got there and they were like, “Oh, no. I don’t think I can do this.”
Kelly: That’s great. So, you mentioned women were finding jobs. Were there women who came without a family?
Peterson: Yeah. There absolutely were. In thinking about these migration patterns, particularly for African Americans, for me it’s kind of a miracle that people ended up at Hanford of all places. Because travel for African American folks in the ‘30s and ‘40s was a fairly dangerous effort. Particularly because lots of folks traveled by car at that time, usually because it was the most affordable way to do anything. Because of racism, because of racial oppression, and because so much of the country was unknown to a lot of people, it’s amazing to me that people just picked up on the hope that what was the other side was going to be much better than what they had already known. That people just packed up their cars or got on a bus and hoped that they would make it one piece.
There are notorious stories of people driving into a town and not knowing the rules of how that town particularly handled segregation. So it was a dangerous undertaking. You kind of never knew what would happen to you. The interesting thing is that in the South, again, your town rules of segregation were probably different than mine. So somehow African American people magically needed to know how they had to conduct themselves no matter where they went. You might end up in jail. You might end up having your car burned down, who knows. In my mind, I think about how fortunate I am today to be able to kind of pick up and go wherever and not have to worry about that. But it was a very different time in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and people really had to worry about themselves and where they went and what was going to happen. So it is a miracle that so many folks made it to Pasco seemingly without too many issues.
On top of that, the fact that there were single women who showed up at Hanford unattached – even more of a miracle. I think everybody was an opportunist at that point and so people were really desperate to leave bad situations. Unfortunately, though, when most women, African American women in particular, arrived at Hanford, they were pretty much offered cleaning positions or kitchen positions, very traditional women’s work.
One of the elders of the Pasco community in an oral history interview was talking about how she had actually been trained as a welder in – I want to say it was somewhere in California. She was living the life. She was earning a paycheck, she had a skill. She felt so good about her life and she was very happy to stay there. I can’t remember where they came from, but her husband was just not satisfied and he kept hearing about this job in Pasco, this Hanford thing, and kept harping on it. Finally, she gave in and said, “You know what? Fine. Let’s go out there and see what this is all about.” She was confident that she would be able to get similar work, because she had a certificate, she had gone through this training program, she had been earning a good salary.
Unfortunately, they got to Hanford and he got whatever job, probably a construction job. She showed up and she’s like, “Oh, I have my certificate. I’m a trained welder.”
They’re like, “Well, you can work in the kitchen or you can clean. Take your pick.”
She was flabbergasted and she thought, how is it possible that I have a trained skill that clearly you probably need in this project and you’re turning me down? That really threw her and, unfortunately, those positions that were available were reserved first for white men. If and only if they didn’t have enough white men for those jobs, maybe a white woman would be working that job, but never a black person.
It was hard to hear, but I imagine not uncommon. I doubt there were a limited number of those opportunities. But the fact that you hear so many stories of, you know, there being this vacuum and that’s why so many African American folks were able to take some of these more skilled jobs, where they wouldn’t ordinarily. And then to hear that, the government was like, “Nope, sorry, not here.” It’s a little bit sad, but she ended up having an amazing rest of her life. She established a church that is still very much well-loved and well-attended and a part of the community in Pasco today. One of the stories of an African American family who ended up sticking it out, and kind of found their niche in Pasco and they made it work for them. But it was very difficult for women in general, but particularly for African American women.
The other side of it was most of the people who were recruited and ended up coming to Hanford were men. You have a situation where you have a bunch of men, probably a lot of them were single, and the small population of women. So there was certainly lots of harassment. I heard at one point the security detail at Hanford had to build a fence around the women’s barracks and people had to have like written permission to visit the women’s barracks, because the situation had gotten so out-of-hand.
Even if you showed up as a couple, you had to live in separate barracks. At that time, early on, there were no places for couples or families to live. The women had to live in the women’s barracks and the men had to live in the men’s barracks, even if you were married.
Kelly: This is for African Americans or—
Peterson: This is for everybody.
Peterson: Yeah. This is for everybody, and you had to have a special pass. If you wanted to go visit your wife in the women’s barracks, you had to have a written pass and you had to show it to the security person at the gate and they would let you in or not.
Kelly: Were there provisions for families? Say it was an African American man and wife who came up there. Could they bring their children with them?
Peterson: Some people did. But again, if you wanted to make that work for you, you probably couldn’t live on the Hanford campus itself. You would end up living in Pasco, potentially. Or typically what would happen is an uncle, father, brother would show up in Pasco, work for a little while, save up some money and rent a place at a boarding house. Or if they were fortunate enough to make enough money, they could purchase a trailer. But there really were no provisions for African American families, partially because the expectation was that these folks weren’t going to stay. They were temporary workers.
On the flip side, however, all of Richland was entirely a white community and a planned community. Because most of the people living in Richland were scientists, administrators, and those people did have families. When they showed up, there were houses for them. They were very modest houses built by the military. But it was significantly easier if you were a white person coming to work at Hanford. You had much more flexibility. I’m sure not everybody had the means to buy those houses right off the bat, but typically, the folks at Hanford were probably making slightly higher salaries – white people at Hanford were making slightly higher salaries than African Americans. It was a little bit easier to establish yourself if you had a family. Or there were steps. There was a clearer path for you.
It was very difficult if you were intending to bring your family, which is why a lot of people ended up going back to where they came from by default. Because, well, if they didn’t really have long-term work, they didn’t really see a point in trying to set themselves up. I think when a lot of African American folks came back, if they weren’t able to get work again at Hanford, they ended up in more urban areas where there was a lot more work to be had post-war.
When most of the construction work at Hanford was done and people were laid off, essentially, there were a number of folks who tried to go back to the South where they were from. The folks that decided not to stay there and come back to Washington, they, most of those people, ended up in more urban areas where they could find work and they could bring a family and establish themselves.
Kelly: These urban areas could have been in the South or the West or North. Or were they mostly in the South? These urban areas that they might have ended up in.
Peterson: I would say a good percentage actually came back to the West Coast, but I would imagine probably folks ended up places like Chicago or Detroit. Larger, more urban areas.
So, essentially, when Colonel [Franklin] Matthias approached the governor of Washington [Arthur B. Langlie], the then governor of Washington, part of the provision of the governor giving the go-ahead for the Hanford project was that he forced Colonel Matthias to increase his budget for the entire project to ensure that there was enough funds available to send African Americans home, wherever they came from, once the Hanford project was complete. Because the governor did not want that many African American people hanging around in Washington State, which was pretty surprising to hear. So that’s part of the reason that there weren’t provisions made for African American families specifically, because they were just seen as temporary labor.
Kelly: Was there a quota for African Americans above which they couldn’t hire more than X percent?
Peterson: Not that I’m aware of. I don’t believe there was a formal quota for African American workers at Hanford. I think they just hired whoever they could hire. My sense is that they were using the warm body method, which means whoever they could get to sign up and say yes, they kind of ushered in without much thought.
One of the recruiters in his oral history had a very funny story about – they had a serious of questions they were required to ask when they interviewed potential Hanford workers. It would be like, “Can you write your name? No. Can you use a hammer? Okay.” So, the bar kind of had been set fairly low. As long as you could see fairly well, and you could figure out how to use some tools, you were an employable person, no matter where you came from. I think they just ended up taking as many people as they possibly could.
Kelly: I wonder if you discovered any – sort of touched on this earlier – record of what happened. The training that people had in their experiences at Hanford must have been of value to them as they searched, you know, for their future jobs. Is there any sense, at least anecdotally, that this was true, that it was kind of an elevator for them financially and giving them job skills?
Peterson: I think that working at Hanford certainly was a financial elevator for African American folks in particular, but I’m sure [for] everybody who worked there. Because what they were making at Hanford was far and away well more than they would ever make where they came from. I don’t know how many people ended up leveraging the skills that they picked up working at Hanford after the Manhattan Project was finished. I don’t know that there were too many folks who were able to keep doing those kinds of jobs.
I do know that after the war there still were lots of aviation positions. The shipyards still remained somewhat active. People were able to stay in that kind of work. But they were moving back to places like Tacoma and Bremerton and Oakland, and other cities kind of along the coast. Those industries were still active post-war. But I can’t think of anyone that I came across that specifically volleyed their construction experience at Hanford into long-term work after the war.
Kelly: What other insights do you have about the experience and the people who worked at Hanford who were African Americans? Are they proud of what they did? What happened when they learned they were working on the bomb?
Peterson: That is an excellent question. I think that a lot of African Americans were incredibly proud to work towards the war effort. I think there was a sensibility that that was a way of proving they were valuable citizens. That they were just as American as anybody else. I think people were also opportunists, and so that kind of coupled with this spirit of patriotism. I think a lot of people – and the folks that I encountered – that were interviewed about their experience, or talked about their experience after they learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were saddened and surprised that that’s what they had been working on. But at the same time, I think there was a feeling that that was the only way we would have won the war. The fact that they helped to contribute to that was a source of pride for them as part.
I think as time goes on, people start to really get into the nuances of all the lives lost and all the devastation that happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I think there has probably been some tempering of that, but I think probably the majority of people, if you ask them if they would do it again, they would say, “Yes.” There was a spirit of participating in something greater than themselves that a lot of African American folks in particular felt it was important that they contributed to. I think even something that’s seemingly as small as working in construction on a military facility was a source of immense pride for people. Because had they not built those facilities, none of those things would have happened. I think as much as we diminish things like construction labor, I think it’s really important to think about that as having been a really important way for people to contribute. Because there were so few opportunities and people were so restricted in terms of what they could do.
I’m immensely heartened by the fact that people sacrificed a lot. Again, traveling across the United States, thousands of miles, not knowing who or what you were going to encounter. Most of these people had never heard anything about Washington State before. Most people didn’t know anybody at all. Showing up in a place where you may or may not be wanted is a pretty significant life choice and a pretty significant way that these folks really contributed to the story of our country. The morality and ethics of nuclear bombs aside, really that was a valuable contribution. I think that so many people overlook these small acts of sacrifice. A huge number of African American folks really contributed to the war effort in a very significant way.
What I also think is interesting, in terms of the way that work and labor is viewed today, I think it’s really important to value the contribution of folks who do things that we may not think are big acts. Putting your life on the line is certainly a sacrifice. Fighting for your country is certainly a sacrifice, but there are other ways to sacrifice and contribute that may not be as glamorous, right. So I think that looking at the ways in which people have contributed to building our country and working for the good of our country in very small ways is really important and really valuable. And looking at the ways in which people found that avenue, whether you have a college degree or not, I think it’s a lesson in how everyone can contribute something, no matter how big or how small.
It’s really important that that particular story is available to people and people really understand that it wasn’t just a construction job for a lot of people. It was the start of something much bigger and it took people a lot to get there. While people were willing to put their lives on the line in a foreign country, people had to put their lives on the line in our own country. I think a lot of people forget that. I think that the State of Washington is a better place for it, and our country and our nation’s history is much better for it.
It’s amazing. Long, long ago, high school or college, when I was learning about the Manhattan Project, you only heard Enrico Fermi and all the big-wig scientists from Germany. And the United States kind of powwowing and coming up with this genius engineering feat. And you never heard about anything else. I think we so often put so much weight on the minds, which are important and valuable. But again, really thinking about how we equalize the value of people’s contributions. That yes, those people were important, but those ideas would be nothing if they didn’t have 600,000 people executing on those ideas, and flawlessly executing on them. Because, if something, even 1/100th of a margin of error, right, things would’ve gone totally wrong. Thinking about all those people whose names we might never know, who worked day in and day out, not even realizing that’s what they were working on, for one. But for two, trying to make ends meet and provide for themselves and their families is, I think just as valuable as those people who have PhDs. There’s a place for everybody, and I think that everybody’s contributions should be equally valued.
Kelly: You think about, if I’m correct that the United States has a population of about 340 million people, and all of those people we hope will be inspired and strive and do the best to contribute. We only focus in history on the .00001%.
Peterson: Exactly. Exactly.
Kelly: What’s the message for—
Peterson: Everyone else. Yeah.
Kelly: That’s great.
Peterson: When you live in times that feel dark and you feel hopeless and powerless, to think about those people at least gives me hope. I think it’s hopeful to think that this person who is very poor and maybe had a third-grade education was able to find an opportunity. It might not have been to get a PhD, it may not have been to be a doctor or a lawyer, but you found a path to feeling like a valuable member of society and being able to contribute something and to be able to make a life for themselves. It didn’t have to be that path. Thinking about those really small ways and small acts that people have contributed and have done throughout time, I think gives me a sense of hope. Because I don’t have a PhD, I’m not a physicist, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer, but the fact that I have an opportunity to tell these incredible stories of sacrifice and hope, I hope that that inspires those other, you know, 339.999 million people to say, “Hey, there’s something you can contribute to.” No matter how small, it’s still important.
Kelly: Anything else we haven’t touched on that is part of the story?
Peterson: Well, I will mention that what I find interesting is that I think when we talk about particular points in our history, particularly when it comes to race relations, everything is very much black or white. But I think people forget that even in the instance of Hanford, there was discrimination against Japanese American people because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And there was a sizeable enough Japanese American community living in the Tri-Cities area. They were spread out and the rule was that if you lived on the Pasco side of the Columbia River, you were fine. But if you were living on the Hanford side of the Columbia River in Kennewick or in that area, you were sent on a train to an internment camp. The fact that there was so many other levels of discrimination happening, that it wasn’t just African American or white or Jim Crow. There were so many other kinds of racial discrimination happening, and those stories so often get left out.
I think it was a struggle for those Japanese-American families to come back if they did. I do know that there are a few families who did come back and were able to kind of pick up where they left off. Nobody really rallied for them to stay. People were like, “Well, I guess you got to go.” It’s really an unfortunate situation that sometimes in the bigger picture of our history of race relations we forget that there were other people who were also on the receiving end of some pretty nasty racism and discrimination as well. And we can’t forget about that either.
Peterson: But it’s interesting, we’re recruiting all these African Americans and yet kicking out all these Japanese-Americans. Who is being perceived as a threat and why and the kinds of rhetoric that the government has put out there at various times in our history and against various groups. It’s kind of interesting to look at when you think about what’s happening over here, but this is also happening in parallel.
Small though they may have been, you know, the Native Americans lost all their rights, their tribal rights, to the land. Some people were lucky enough to get paid for their land, but the Native American folks got nothing when they were removed for the government to annex that property. Nobody really talks about that.
Apparently, there was a sizeable population of Mexican-American folks who worked at Hanford as well, who I know nothing about and have had a lot of difficulty tracking down any information about those folks and what they did at Hanford. I do know anecdotally that Benester Fields, who lives in Seattle, whose mother worked at Hanford. I believe she was a waitress. One of her very good friends at Hanford was a Mexican-American woman, and that’s how Benester actually got her name.
There were these really interesting kind of cross-cultural relationships that developed that, again, are mostly lost to the history books. But it’s really interesting to think about when you are in this situation of duress and everyone is very pro-war and pro-United States, and under the umbrella of that climate, how people’s relationships developed. How people worked together or not, depending on where you found yourself.
I think if I were to continue to chip away at this, I think that would be my next area of research. Really figuring out, one, the story behind the Japanese-American community in the Tri-Cities, and two, if any of the current Mexican-American population trace their origin stories back to working at Hanford in the World War II era, or if they’re all fairly new to the area. I would really love to know what their stories are and how they found themselves at Hanford and if it was a similar trajectory. Or, you know, how those folks were treated. Was there a barracks for Mexican-American people who worked at Hanford? Were they allowed in the general mix? I’m not sure, but I would love to know.
Because as you kind of start to peel away the layers, again, there’s always the big story, but then there’s a lot of little stories. And for me, those little stories are way more interesting.
Kelly: That’s great. Yeah. All three sites are very unique, and various compositions of the workforce drawn from the surrounding areas.
Kelly: At Los Alamos it was Pueblo people as well as Hispanics. And they both contributed. They haven’t been largely represented in the official histories and we’re just now trying to make sure that their story is told.
Kelly: Of course, it’s now 75 years after the fact.
Peterson: Exactly. Yeah, that’s the difficult part. So many of those folks are no longer with us. In order to know if they have any descendants or if any relatives of those people might still be around, that’s a whole other research task, right. Going through those Department of Energy records, the payroll records, the housing records, and really piecing together who those people were. It’s an interesting exercise. I hope somebody does it.
Kelly: It’s doubly complicated because of the secrecy.
Peterson: Yes, exactly.
Kelly: People didn’t make badges with people’s names–
Peterson: Right, right.
Kelly: You’re assigned a number and these numbers get–
Peterson: Totally, totally. Yeah. In Hanford’s case, you kind of think to yourself, well, why didn’t they just hire the people who were there? But, again, this whole thing was supposed to be secret and I think there was a lot of mistrust. I think they just thought, well, one, the population was so small they wouldn’t have had enough people to begin with. But two, I think there was a sense of, “Well, we’ve alienated these people by buying up their land and kicking them out. They may have some ulterior motives if we end up hiring them.” But it was very bizarre to think that probably at least 90% of the people who came to work at Hanford were not from anywhere in the surrounding area. They didn’t bother to employ local people.
Kelly: I’m just – I’m not sure how many local people there were.
Kelly: I mean, the number of people who were evicted from the land proper, it’s in the few thousands.
Kelly: About two or three thousand.
Kelly: So that wouldn’t have done it.
Kelly: They had 75,000.
Peterson: Not even close, not even close.
Peterson: I’m really interested in what their experience was like and how they felt about the government coming in and saying, “You got to go. You can take this money or not, but you have to leave at the end.”
Kelly: They were very bitter.
Peterson: I would be.
Kelly: Especially the farmers who were not allowed to harvest their crops.
Peterson: Yes, that’s right.
Kelly: And, that was–
Kelly: –devastating to them.
Peterson: Absolutely. That was their livelihood.
Kelly: Right, right. So they were not happy.
Kelly: Some of them had been World War I veterans.
Kelly: They had a better sense of, “Yes, if the military needs this land–“
Kelly: “–I understand–“
Kelly: The military needs and–
Peterson: I’m happy the–
Kelly: Or, I’m reconciled–
Peterson: Right. Yeah. Interesting.
Kelly: Right. [Inaudible]
Peterson: Yeah, yeah.
Kelly: What was the conclusion of your exhibit? What did that panel say?
Peterson: There were just headlines from the local newspaper we included that had “Atomic Bomb Dropped,” and a couple of quotes from people who talked about what their thoughts were after they learned that the bomb had been dropped and that that’s what they had been working toward. Just sort of giving people that there was a huge sense of relief that the war had been over. And a sense of pride that people had contributed to the war ending. But at the same time I think there was a sort of,
“Ooh, that’s what we were working on.” I think there was, “I don’t feel good about that, but I’m glad that the war has ended.” Because I think the feeling was, and I feel like most people bought into this, that if the war had kept going, many, many more lives would have been lost in battle than had been lost just by bombing Japan.
Kelly: Did many of them have relatives in the military?
Peterson: I’m not aware of anybody that had any relatives that were actually in combat.
Kelly: Well, more to be learned.
Peterson: Yes, yes.
Kelly: That’s really wonderful that you’re doing this research.
Peterson: Yeah. I don’t know what other opportunities are ahead for continuing on this path. But we’ll see.
Kelly: I love the idea of looking at the Japanese-Americans in the Tri-Cities as well. I hadn’t been aware that there was this, major division with the Columbia River. One side you’re allowed to stay; the other side, you’re gone to internment camps.
Peterson: Yeah. I mean, not that I’m saying it was a good idea, but it makes sense, because if you’re in Pasco, you’re far enough from the Hanford facility that you’re not really a threat, which is sort of silly. Because, you just hop on a bridge and there you are. I think at that point, probably not a ton of people really had cars, you know, and transportation was significantly not as advanced in that area as it is now.
Well, it made sense in a way, because Pasco was on the far side of the Columbia River, so not terribly close to Hanford. But there was a bridge connecting Pasco and Kennewick, so if you had a car and the means to do it, you could just hop on over. But it was a weird sort of mentality, like dividing the area that way and believing that people who lived over here would not be a threat. Whereas, the people who are living here would be. It was strange, but I see their logic. But it was, yeah, kind of strange.
Kelly: Especially strange since the African Americans who participated and worked on a daily basis at Hanford lived in Pasco.
Peterson: Some of them, exactly. They would just get on a bus and go to Hanford, so what’s to stop anybody else from being able to do that, I guess. I know there have been some stories in the local media out there recently about some of the Japanese-American families that did kind of survive and have managed to stick around for this many generations and talking about what their experience were like. I’m really curious if more is going to be unearthed about that, particularly because I think everyone’s looking to that time period and the way that we treated Japanese-Americans as an example of what not to do again. I think it’s definitely more in the American consciousness now. I think people are curious about what happened and what people did. And hopefully, that will kind of prompt people to come forward and we’ll learn more about it.